Joey Badass Still Makes Nostalgia Sound Good On ‘2000’

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When Joey Badass made his debut at 17 years old in 2012 with the ornery, staunchly nostalgic 1999, he was declared the second coming of “real hip-hop” – i.e. Brooklyn-accented, sample-heavy boom-bap rap of the sort that dominated New York radio for a significant chunk of the ‘90s. For what it’s worth, the city has had a long history of anointing teenage rhyme heroes to save the genre from itself. LL Cool J, Nas, and The Notorious B.I.G. have all been slotted onto that lofty pedestal – the difference was, that Joey would seemingly save rap by going back in time, rather than warping it light years ahead.

The problem is that in the years since, Joey has appeared distinctly disinterested in filling that role, eschewing the mantle of hip-hop savior for something a bit more down-to-earth. While his follow-up releases evolved his sound and style, they also became more erratic; his last full-length release, All-Amerikkkan Badass, came out in 2017. In the meantime, Joey branched out creatively, becoming something of a trailblazer in a different respect than the one many expected him to. While it’s commonplace now for rappers to transition into other fields of entertainment – acting, modeling, directing, and so forth – Joey had already secured his first major role in the cyberpunk series Mr. Robot just a year after dropped his “official” debut album, B4.Da.$$.

And now, he’s returned with just his third full-length studio album. Titled 2000, its name suggests a return to the spirit of that much-magnified debut, 1999. A lot has changed since then; the man himself is 10 years older, with all the wisdom and experience implied. He’s had plenty of success, but he’s also had disappointments. With all the fanfare surrounding him when he started, many expected him to be somewhere in the range of a Drake or J. Cole or Kendrick Lamar – the upper echelons of rap (himself included). While his talent arguably justifies the comparisons, and lyrically, he might well be up there, the way he is perhaps most similar to them is in his and Kendrick’s shared iconoclasm.

Which is probably why it’s so jarring that the very first voice we hear on 2000 is Diddy’s. At one point, the mogul would have been seen as the antithesis of Joey’s youthful rebellion. After all, Diddy wasn’t just at the forefront of hip-hop’s excessive jiggy era, he was its chief architect. But his presence is instructive; on 2000, Joey’s mission objective seems to be to reconcile his present conditions with the keep-it-real expectations assessed to him – to finally make whole the disparate segments of his overall career. It’s like he wants us to appreciate his success outside of music as sort of a replacement for his near absence within it. As a target, it might be a little out of his reach, but that doesn’t mean that the effort isn’t worthwhile.

For one thing, Badass can still get down on the mic like nobody’s business. For another, his ear for beats that deftly tightrope the often opposing demands of the mainstream and his established lane has only grown more adept. “Make Me Feel,” “Brand New 911” featuring Westside Gunn, “Zipcodes,” and “One Of Us” defy the stigma that often follows traditionalist hip-hop of being dreary or weighed down by gloomy or repetitive samples. Instead, they are breezy, like driving down the highway at twilight with the top down, and he sounds confident and light on his toes, like a boxer dancing in the ring, knowing his opponent is too slow to keep up. You believe him when he calls himself a “walking industry loophole.” He earns the Nas co-sign that appears on “Cruise Control.”

He’s also gotten better at emotive storytelling. The crown jewel of the album is the not quite melancholy “Survivors Guilt,” on which he relays his remorse at not doing more to prevent the death of his friend and fellow Pro Era founder Capital Steez. It’s the most vulnerable and honest we’ve ever seen him, dropping the brusque New York swagger for a quiet confessional. You even want to forgive him for the crass “pause” he throws in while baring his brotherly love for Steez. Unfortunately, he also missteps when he tries to do two “songs for the ladies” back-to-back. The second one, “Show Me” is fine, if rote, but if hearing Diddy at the top is jarring, hearing the endlessly problematic Chris Brown on “Welcome Back” might give you whiplash.

I think, in the end, the thing barring Joey from that coveted higher plateau of hip-hop notoriety – aside from adherence to an anachronistic philosophy of rap sonics and his groundhog-esque ability to go missing from the arena that counts most – is the thematic haziness that surrounds all of his projects. He sounds like he’s perpetually ciphering on the block with his boys. Occasionally, they’ll touch on a thread and consider it for a few verses, but then the stream of consciousness will carry another subject along for them to latch onto. It feels ephemeral and carefree, but in a way that never really sticks to your ribs. Ironically, it seems Joey himself hasn’t really changed much since 2012, he’s just got more to talk about. It sounds nice, but I wish that the words held more weight.

2000 is out now on Pro Era/Cinematic Music Group/Columbia Records. Get it here.